By John Boyle Herald Columnist
The U.S. soccer team survived the so-called “Group of Death” in the 2014 World Cup, which means the Americans are in the knockout stage of the tournament, where just about anything can happen.
That also means we’re headed for the questions that seem to come up every four years: What would a successful World Cup showing mean for American soccer? Will America become, gasp, a soccer country (whatever that constitutes)? Would advancement to, say, the semifinals be what finally gets soccer over the hump and turns it into a big-four caliber sport in the U.S.?
The answer to most of those questions is a resounding “yes … and no.”
Even if the U.S. squad won the whole darn thing, which is remains highly unlikely even after the field has been trimmed in half, Major League Soccer isn’t suddenly going to compete with the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball for TV ratings. (NHL numbers, however, are a realistic target for MLS). But what this year’s World Cup showing by the U.S. can be is another step in the sport’s slow but steady growth in this country.
“This World Cup is not going to make or break Major League Soccer or soccer in this country,” said Adrian Hanauer, general manager and minority owner of the Seattle Sounders.
Hanauer understands that the majority of casual fans cheering for their country aren’t going to stick around this summer for MLS games, at least outside of Seattle, Portland and a few other soccer-loving cities. But the other reason Hanauer wouldn’t put all of American soccer’s eggs in the World Cup basket is because he firmly believes that MLS is heading in the right direction regardless of what happens in Brazil.
“I’m a big believer that soccer in the United States has gotten over a hump, and that there’s no stopping it from becoming probably one of the four major sports in this country, displacing someone, and that it certainly has become one of the big five sports in this country,” Hanauer said before start of the World Cup. “Certainly the U.S. having a good showing helps move that along, but people have short memories, so whether the U.S. flames out or wins the World Cup, it’ll have some short-term effects. … It can go one way or another over a short period of time, but we’re in this for the long haul. I think it’s just a matter of time until the league is top four, and the United States is competing to be in the top eight at effectively every World Cup. It may take us another eight, 12, 16 years, but I believe we’re on that trajectory.”
Even if escaping one of the toughest groups in the tournament won’t convert every casual soccer fan into an MLS fan, what we’ve seen so far in this World Cup is encouraging for the game’s future in this country.
For MLS, and in turn the sport as a whole, to grow, the league and its players need to be taken seriously by American sports fans. It’s not that this country doesn’t have enough soccer fans to support a domestic league — and by support, I don’t just mean filling 20,000-seat stadiums, I’m talking about significant TV viewership, which is what drives revenue in big-time sports around the world. The problem is it doesn’t have enough soccer fans who are MLS fans, and there’s a distinct difference.
There are plenty of American soccer fans — or soccer snobs, depending on your point of view — who watch English Premier League or Spanish La Liga or German Bundesliga games every weekend, but who won’t give their local MLS team the time of day. Their argument, which has plenty of validity, is that those leagues feature a higher caliber of play, making it a more entertaining product.
And nobody, not MLS commissioner Don Garber, not a single MLS coach or executive, is going to tell you with a straight face that MLS is on par with those leagues. But what those of us who have been watching the league over the years have seen, and what this World Cup is showing, is that MLS is a lot better than people give it credit for.
In Monday’s game against Germany, the U.S. started seven MLS players, including its captain, Sounders forward Clint Dempsey. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann regularly says he prefers to have his players playing for European clubs, yet his roster decisions show he’s taking MLS-based players seriously, and those players are producing results.
And if this country’s next generation of top players sees star players such as Dempsey and Michael Bradley, as well as young, home-grown players like DeAndre Yedlin succeeding on the game’s biggest stage while playing their club soccer in MLS, that’s huge for the league’s future.
There is still far more money in Europe than the MLS, so top players will continue to look elsewhere. However, as TV revenues grow for MLS — the league just signed a new deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision reportedly worth $90 million per year, a significant jump over the previous deal — more and more players, both American and foreign, will view MLS as a viable career choice. That will improve the level of play, which in turn will increase TV viewership, which means more TV money, which means higher salaries, which means better players, and then the cycle just perpetuates itself.
And it’s not just American MLS players succeeding in this World Cup. Costa Rica, the surprise winner of another tough group — it topped Italy, England and Uruguay in Group D — has three MLS players on its roster, and that doesn’t include one of its top players, Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio, who went down with an injury right before the World Cup.
Australia is out of the World Cup, but New York’s Tim Cahill was one of the tournament’s early stars, and Toronto FC goalkeeper Julio Cesar was the hero of Brazil’s shootout win over Chile on Saturday. When you add all of it up, America’s success, foreign MLSers playing well, how can you not take MLS seriously, even if it still has catching up to do with the world’s top leagues?
“It’s great to see so many MLS players not only make the team, but get playing time and make an impact,” said Sounders sporting director Chris Henderson, a Cascade High School grad. “But there are a lot of people who still doubt if soccer’s going to make it in the U.S., and there’s still a lot of doubters for sure world-wide. But MLS has made great strides in the past couple of decades, and it keeps moving forward. The soccer people we know are here to stay, but I think the casual fan is starting to realize that this is the real deal.
“You look at the quality of the players, the Costa Ricans, the Hondurans, what Cahill’s done, it’s a league that people are looking at and it’s starting to be a league of choice for some players. Definitely the agents have seen it over the last couple of years. We’re working with big agencies now who see Major League Soccer and the U.S. as a market they want to target, so that’s a really good sign.”
Is it a sign that soccer is America’s next big thing? No, but it is yet another step in the road toward sustained success. That’s hardly an exciting answer, but it’s important for the long-term growth of MLS and American soccer nonetheless.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.